The nawab is back

Old world charm

The nawab is back
Of late, Saif Ali Khan has been in the news more for the confidence with which his wife lived out her pregnancy, and for the controversy surrounding their choice of name for their newborn son. But Khan is hoping that the only thing people will soon be talking about is his performance as a Parsi movie producer in Vishal Bhardwaj’s February 24 release, Rangoon.

He’s been acting for 23 years, weathering many a storm along the way — both professionally and personally — but he’s managed to take the highs with the lows and at 46, found calmness within. Memorable movies like Dil Chahta Hai, Being Cyrus, Love Aaj Kal and Kal Ho Naa Ho are just some that have earned Khan his fan following although some of them must have been surprised at his National Award for best actor for Hum Tum (in 2005).

Inspired by the fit and furiously busy senior actors, Saif has decided to give film production a break and concentrate on acting, paying particular attention to the choice of roles and directors he works with. He shares these thoughts while seated in his office, looking relaxed in a white kurta-pyjama, sipping a cup of coffee.

He’s thoughtful about every question asked and, unlike his more effervescent wife Kareena Kapoor Khan, more politically correct. Echoes of his boarding school and British education are still evident in his clipped accent as he speaks about the influence of cinema in his life, his future plans and, of course, Rangoon.

“In Rangoon, I play a former actor turned producer called Russi. The film is set during World War II, which gave us the opportunity to play with the period setting. A great deal of credit should go to the very hardworking and sporting assistants who managed to zero in on locations and create an atmosphere for us to work in. Also, the visual effects guys are magicians and we rely heavily on them to recreate Bombay of that time,” says Saif, who particularly enjoyed playing dress-up — borrowing ideas and inspiration from memory and his grandfather’s albums.

He’s old-fashioned

“I suppose I am quite old-fashioned in my tastes. I think I drove our costume designer, Dolly Ahluwalia, quite mad. I have seen a lot of films from that time and I know what it looked like. Not just films, but also my grandfather’s albums,” he adds.

This is Saif’s second film with Vishal Bhardwaj after Omkara, which gave the actor the fabulously textured and dark part of Langda Tyagi. Khan says working on an adaptation of Shakespeare made him and his colleagues feel like artistes. “That gave a lot of respect. Once again with Rangoon, Vishal has created this epic world. Vishal has a tremendous visual sense and he creates that world and that era. When you are working with him, you always feel the setting is cool, and it is a really nice experience to be a part of that world. I think audiences today also want a cinematic experience with costume, production design etc.”

Following Rangoon, this year Saif should also be seen in two other films — the Hindi remake of the Hollywood film Chef, directed by Raja Menon, and an offbeat film directed by Akshat Verma. He’s also close to signing on two other films — one in which he plays a “soulless music producer”, and another in which he plays a portly businessman.

In other words, in the coming films, Saif will be seen as “a psychopathic, egotistical film producer, a banker with a terminal illness, a chef, a music producer, and maybe a Gujarati businessman”. But besides all the work, including reading scripts, he’s also ensuring a healthy work-life balance. This includes improving his command over French, listening to and playing music, reading voraciously and travelling.

Having a Plan B

“I found I had a concentration problem and I wanted to work my way through it, and I have. I can now read for a couple of hours at a stretch and absorb at the same time. I love my library,” he says.

Khan calls watching his mother Sharmila Tagore’s films, while growing up, an experience he didn’t wholly enjoy. “I saw my mother in a couple of Hindi movies. They were very emotional films like Mausam and Amar Prem. I didn’t like the idea of her crying on screen; it used to disturb me slightly. I generally found her Hindi movies to be very emotional. So I didn’t watch them as a kid. Later, when I was older, I could separate the emotional aspect.”

Saif’s one regret in life is not following up a solid UK school education with a university degree. But where his children Sara and Ibrahim are concerned, he’s clear that though they might want to follow the family profession, it’s imperative they have a plan B. “Ibrahim is in a boarding school in England and enjoying that. Sara has graduated from Colombia University with honours a year early. She’s smart and she has an education to fall back on. If she had said that she didn’t want to go to college, I would have insisted she get a degree before doing anything else. But you can’t make someone do these things — as my parents saw with me!” says the father of three.

And now Sara is poised to be the next generation in the Tagore-Khan clan to step in front of the camera. “Yes. Sara is very driven. She has always wanted to act. This is a fascinating profession and everyone around her has gained so much from it. If you know how to use it to your benefit, this profession can give you a really good life. But you must think like an actor. Don’t think 9-5, but be an artiste — read, travel, think about the art and figure out what kind of actor you want to be. That would be my advice,” he says.

By his own admission, it took him a while to figure out the kind of actor he wants to be, and hopefully his forthcoming slate, starting with Rangoon, will be a reflection of that.
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